Retired Truist CEO Kelly King joined High Point University President Nido Qubein in the Power List Interview, a partnership for discussions with some of the state’s most influential leaders.
Kelly King, 74, is a legend in North Carolina banking. A Raleigh native who grew up in a family of modest means, he paid his way through East Carolina University and joined Branch Banking and Trust in 1972. King succeeded John Allison as CEO in 2009, then led acquisitions of banks in Kentucky and Pennsylvania and the 2019 merger of equals with Atlanta-based SunTrust. King retired as CEO in September 2021. He works with his son, Ken, at KSK Investors in Charlotte.
This story includes excerpts from Team’s interview and was lightly edited for clarity.
Kelly King, your life has been a phenomenal story. You grew up on a tobacco farm in Eastern North Carolina and you traveled a path to become chairman and CEO of the sixth-largest financial institution in America: 55,000 employees and assets of $550 billion. You have been a major architect of the largest bank merger since the Great Recession. Along the way, things like service and leadership filled your heart and nurtured your mind. I want to ask you about the ingredients that make for a good leader?
I’ve tried to learn along and figure out how to take complex subjects and make them simple. So, I sat down one day and asked, “What are the characteristics of an outstanding leader?” And there are three. No. 1, they are honest about the reality they face.
What does that mean?
Leaders will face difficult circumstances, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s not that bad.’ You see company leaders talking to their boards and saying, “Well, we’re having a little tough patch, but it’ll go away,” when it’s really fundamental structural tough issues. They’re not talking about the real, tough reality issues.
How do you define “reality”?
Reality is the circumstances that you are facing that are within and without your control that are going to exist whether you like it or not.
What if you and I look at the same challenge and define it in two different ways?
In the pursuit of reality, you have to add objectivity. You might think the sun rises in the west and sets in the east. I’d say well, I appreciate your perspective, but you happen to be wrong. As effective leaders, we have to apply objective analysis to perspectives.
How does one learn how to be objective?
Reasoning and reality go hand in hand. You don’t have to be super smart, but you have to know when you are not smart enough to reason through circumstances, then you surround yourself with people you trust who can help you find discernment. A lot of my objectivity and reasoning comes from my faith. Sometimes it’s just too complex, so I go to a higher power and I pray about it. It takes a lot of thought.
What’s the second characteristic?
To be clear about your vision about how to make it better. Not everyone is an outstanding leader. Some people will not be honest about the reality. Some people are honest about reality, they just don’t have a clue about what to do about it. Doesn’t make them a bad human being. They’re just not outstanding leaders. They might be outstanding followers. Each is important.
They’re just not going to be in leadership positions.
We all have different roles in life, in our families and in our business and in our communities. I’m not saying leaders are more important, you just have to have leaders to get from A to B. You have to have effective followers to follow that leader. But the leader has to have clarity about the vision and be able to communicate it.
What’s the third characteristic?
Courage. It’s the commitment to take action in spite of the challenges and circumstances. Even if you get criticized. Even if you don’t know exactly where to go. An example of this was John Kennedy when he said, “We’re going to the moon, and we’re going to do it in 10 years.” Scientists thought we only had 10% of the scientific capacity to do that. He wanted to show our country that we could be bold. It happened because he laid out a clear vision and had the courage to put his cachet on the line. Great leaders are not trying to be popular. They’re trying to change the world.
Was there a time in your life when you executed courageously and got beat up for it?
Early on in the BB&T journey, I wanted to be sure to get everyone’s attention. I put up on a big slide, for our board and for investors, I said, “Disrupt or Die.”
The question is, do we disrupt ourselves or wait for somebody else to do it? If you go back over 25 or 30 years as this paradigm shift occurred where people demanded more ‘right here, right now.’ Some people got it, like Jeff Bezos with Amazon, and the rest is history. Others missed it.
How did you deal with criticism?
I viewed it as an opportunity to educate and to explain. It didn’t make me mad that they didn’t accept my view. I explained and listened. I might be 90% right. One of my pet philosophies on dealing with change is that it’s better to have 100% execution of an 80% idea than a 50% execution of a 100% idea. Start moving down the river and adjust as you go along.
A lot of young people starting in business talk about life-work balance or remote work? What advice would you give them?
People need to decide if they really want to be a high achiever. I believe there are five traits to being an outstanding leader. The first trait is to believe absolutely in what you are trying to accomplish. Olympians will practice 10 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. They’re not saying, ‘well, maybe I can be No. 13.’ They believe, to their toes, that they can be No. 1.
You have cited three key traits as beliefs, committing the energy and, and skill development.
[Another important trait is to] enjoy the journey. It’s deeper than liking. They draw a sense of self-achievement, a sense of self-enrichment. These are the people that’ll work 14-hour days, they’ll go home dead tired, they’ll take a deep breath and they say, ‘I can’t wait to get up in the morning and do it again.” Why? They draw energy from it.
What’s the fifth trait?
The fifth is to have enthusiasm and a positive attitude because obstacles come along.
Does that mean positive thoughts?
It’s not superficial. It’s kin to optimism. A pessimist faces some bad situations and says, “this bad thing happened, it’s going to ruin my whole life, it’s going to last forever, and it’s all my fault.” An optimist facing the same thing says, “this bad thing happened, it’s not going to affect my whole life, it’s probably not going to last all that long. I just have to deal with it.” You have to do some hard work, and then move forward with a positive energy and an optimistic belief.
You also spend time talking about happiness. What’s that about?
I’m deeply concerned about the level of unhappiness in our country today. It is rampant. When you talk to young people, about 60% will say they are very unhappy. Most will say that they have had thoughts of anxiety, depression, even suicide. I saw it exhibited through the pandemic.
That’s not a healthy way to live, and I actually came up with some steps to how to be happy in difficult circumstances. The first step is to choose to be happy. Most people don’t see it as a choice. They think they are victims. Bad things happen, I’ve got to be unhappy. Choose to be happy. Take control of your life.
The second is to be clear about the purpose in your life. And I recommend one of my five great books called “Man’s Search for Meaning” written by Viktor Frankl,. In it, he says, “If you know your ‘why’, you can endure any ‘how.’” Very, very important. Be clear about your purpose in life. Think about it. Pray about it. The third also comes from [author Carol Dweck’s book) “Have a Growth Mindset.”
Versus a fixed mindset?
If you have a growth mindset, that is a mindset that says I can learn, I can grow, I can improve, I can do things. You can move forward. And the fourth is really powerful. It’s to help others. When you help others, two great things happen. You help them, and you help yourself. You’ve heard about the runner’s high? That’s actually true because at a certain point, the brain causes the body to emit a chemical called endorphins and that makes you feel better. The same thing happens when you help other people. The brain says, “release endorphins” and you just feel better.
You picked your lane in life — your personal, spiritual, values, service, leadership lane, and you constantly make sure you’re on track, and you constantly learn. I learn so much from you. Thank you, and best wishes always.
Blessings to you. ■